Austin Pope should be in the Arizona Diamondbacks' Opening Day bullpen

Austin Pope deserves to be in the Arizona Diamondbacks' bullpen after his great 2023 season and promising Spring Traning debut.

Arizona Diamondbacks Photo Day
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One of the multiple pitchers in camp as one of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ non-roster invitees is reliever Austin Pope. Pope is one of the team’s best relief pitching prospects. However, after the right-hander’s quality 2023 minor league season and his extremely promising debut, the D-Backs should open the year with Austin Pope in their bullpen to start the year.

Pope pitched 66.2 innings for Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Reno, working to a 3.65 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 1.38 WHIP. Pope struck out nearly 30% of the batters he faced with a 29.3% K-rate, as well as a quality 8% walk rate. Pope was also good at limiting home runs with a 0.81 HR/9, but he definitely could be better. He was plagued by a .368 batting average on balls in play, which could regress closer to the norm in 2024.

Those numbers are good, but what makes Pope’s numbers stand out are his numbers for Triple-A Reno. He pitched 22 innings with a 2.45 ERA, 3.09 FIP, and 1.55 WHIP. It might seem like he danced through the raindrops with that high of a WHIP, but his BABIP was well over .400 at .424. But that was the only negative thing about his Triple-A numbers. Pope had a K% of 29.2% with a walk rate of 8.3%. He was even better at limiting home runs at Triple-A than Double-A with a 0.41 HR/9, and his groundball rate also rose from 33.9% to 43.1%.

Remember, this was in the Pacific Coast League. The average ERA was 5.70, while Pope had an ERA under 3.00. Home runs are also very common in the PCL, with a league average HR/9 of 1.31. But the biggest takeaway is Pope’s walk rate. The average walk rate in the PCL was 12.3%, while Pope sat under 9%. Pope’s walk rate barely changed when he got promoted from Double-A to Triple-A, rising from 7.9% to 8.3%. That’s notable because Pope had to adjust to the automated strike zone mid-season. For many pitchers, their walk rate goes up significantly when having to pitch to the ABS. But it barely affected Pope.

Austin Pope should be in the Diamondbacks' bullpen

Pope’s first Spring Training game went great. He pitched a perfect inning with a strikeout and only needed 15 pitches to do it. But more impressively is that his fastball hit 95.3 MPH on average. That’s a slight uptick from 2023, when he was sitting closer to 93-94 MPH for Reno. His four-seamer also gained some spin, as he averaged out at 2302 RPM, an uptick by about 40-50 RPM. However, the more impressive velo gain was his slider, which averaged out at 86.4 MPH when he was closer to 82-84 MPH last year.

With all that in mind, I think Austin Pope 100% deserves to start the year in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen. Pitching well in the PCL is extremely impressive. The icing on the cake is his walk rate barely going up from Double-A to Triple-A despite the PCL, with the cherry on top being his